Date: Friday 6th June 2014 Distance walked: 5.5 miles Total distance: 184 miles
St Ives divides opinion in Cornwall. People love it, people hate it. It’s one of the most well-known and well-visited towns in the county and in addition to its reputation for being one of the top tourist destinations in the UK it’s also known for being a bit arty thanks to a bunch of early twentieth-century artists who made this their home and made it famous for their modernist and abstract approaches to their craft. Artists still come here, live here, exhibit here. You hear the phrase quality of light brandished in reference to this place and as justification for its magnetism to artists. It’s questionable whether light can be better or worse in places – ok less developed locations must by dint of amount of sky visible at ground level have more light, but I’m not sure how its quality is quantifiable. Suffice it to say that St Ives is a peninsula town, by dint of its geographical location it has sea on three sides, therefore a large amount of sky on three sides as well as the usual amount over the top of the town. Being located where it is on the north-western edge of Britain’s south-west there is a lot of Atlantic Ocean between St Ives and other towns or land. The sea itself washes over a bed of fine, pale granite sand, giving the water a variation of distinctive turquoise tones depending on the weather, which, set beneath that whole lot of sky gives an attractive backdrop to the pinnacle of land.
There are beaches on all sides. The largest of these, Porthmeor, consists of a long stretch of invitingly creamy sand between the craggy tip of St Ives’ peninsula, known as The Island, and Carrick Du, a rock form parallel with the most westerly extent of the town’s development and marking the divide between town and The Wild which I crossed right at the end of yesterday’s walk from Pendeen. Porthmeor is the archetypal Cornish holiday beach – wide and spacious, soft sand, good swell. Although there are good surfing spots on the south coast, it is Cornwall’s northern beaches that are famously frequented for their waves, not least because they are perfectly situated for the first Atlantic landfall. Right on the seafront, a little further along from where I was staying last night, is the large frontage of the divisive Tate St Ives. Like the town itself, people love it or hate it. Personally I love the building – its entrance hall is fantastic and I find the interior of the building to be architecturally interesting and aesthetically pleasing – but I am generally less fond of what’s inside it. I disliked the last exhibition I went to see there so much that I’ve decided not to go again ever, unless there’s something on that I know in advance I am definitely going to like. Given my disinclination for modern art (see this post), it’s not likely I’ll be going again anytime soon.
The walk round The Island is more akin to the coastal walking just to the west of the town. There’s a chapel on the low pyramidal summit of the spit of land and a coastguard lookout station. The main difference between this and the paths I’ve been frequenting is that there is altogether a tamer feel, and more benches. Of course this isn’t really an island, but you can see how it could be if sea levels rose and the bar of land joining this to the mainland were overtopped by the waves. The connecting land-bridge is well built-up so we can only hope that a) that doesn’t happen too soon and b) the landowners have good flood insurance if it does. The word peninsula actually means ‘almost an island’, the Latin paen- almost, and insula, island, or ‘watery land’. Whilst studying the writing of landscapes during our degree we talked as a group a lot of about the significance of peninsulas and being on them: being surrounded on three sides by water and only connected to the rest of the country on one side gives an almost-isolation that can be both liberating and disconcerting. Opinion was quite divided within our group as to whether or not this was a good thing. Nominally I quite like peninsular living, not least because I’m so attached to, and inspired by the coast so there’s nowhere I can live and have quite so much of it, but travel-wise it does have its draw-backs as you have to spend a long time travelling eastwards out of the south-west of England by whatever mode of transport you use before you can begin to take any direction elsewhere.
Round the headland is another beach, this one smaller though still a decent expanse of the good sand, aptly named Porthgwidden – the white cove. Along the back is a line of early twentieth-century beach huts, each with different coloured doors like Lego houses. I once spent the best part of a day excavating a really big hole with some friends on this beach whilst we were on holiday here. It was a hot summer’s day but with a heavy fog covering the coast we hadn’t really thought about sunscreen and by the time we felt like we might be getting sunburnt we’d already got sunburnt. Of course this was the first day of the holiday so we spent the rest of the week with bright pink bikini lines and limited options as to what we could wear that wouldn’t touch the burnt bits, and the following week once we all got home, peeling.
Keep going round the headland and there’s another beach, smaller still, a little rock-and-sand nook behind one of the piers called Bamalûz Beach. The larger Smeaton’s Pier protrudes southwards from the headland protecting St Ives harbour, and was built to a revolutionary design which allows the sea water through to scour the harbour at high tide and keep it clear, by the architect and foremason responsible for the Eddystone Lighthouse, John Smeaton and Thomas Richardson. The tide was fairly high and coming in when I reached the harbour – you can tell the direction of tidal flow by the position of the boats at anchor: they always point bow into the flow of water, so if the boats are facing out of the harbour, the tide is coming in and vice versa. There was also a teddy bear buried up to his neck in the sand of the harbour for some reason.
Up the hill, up the road above Porthminster, another photogenic, tourist board-ready beach down steps below the station. From here the St Ives branch lines jostles with the coast path for prime position along the perimeter, round Carbis Bay to the Hayle Estuary and up to St Erth where it (the train line) joins the mainline route from London to Penzance. Taking the train from here felt like it would be cheating, so I left my baggage at the B&B and am going to walk it, then train it back to get my stuff and head home for a day’s break before continuing on round the coast on Sunday. Round Porthminster Point the train line gets the better deal. I was diverted through suburbia, past front gardens, one filled incongruously with cacti, along pavements, through a wooded stretch. The weather was quite oppressive: warm, but overcast and spotting enough rain too need a raincoat making for sticky and uncomfortable walking. I wondered if perhaps I should have taken the train after all. At Carbis Bay I was spat back onto the coast proper almost level with the station: down some steps where a couple let me get ahead as I seem to be walking faster than they were, and out to where a broad sea view like an oil painting of the eastern side of St Ives Bay towards Godrevy Island and the Hayle Estuary opened out . Dunes clothed in deep green meet houses perched precariously at the top of Carrack Gladden. Sandbars reached pale arms into the tide, the offshore drowned topography mapped out in sweeps of turquoise and teal.
Round the point and I was parallel with the railway line, my path through the dunes above Porth Kidney sands. Marram grass, bramble and gorse, tiny jewels of blue speedwell and lilac-pink little geranium, tall spires of umbellifers like spread hands at the ends of spindly arms or lace parasols held up on a long green stem. Umbrella-fers. There’s a golf course. Of course there’s a golf course – golf and sand dunes go hand in hand. The River Hayle – another Cornish-English tautology: heyl means ‘estuary’ in Cornish – snaked a ribbon of deep teal out through bands of sand. Historically the River Hayle has been one of the most polluted in Cornwall (and therefore the UK and probably Europe) thanks to the legacy of the local minerals industry, but its combination of dunes, tidal sandflats and a wide area of saltmarsh mean that it’s post-industrial incarnation finds it designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a nature reserve.
I recrossed the railway line over a footbridge, was warned by several signs of the dangers of airborne golf balls as I briefly traversed the links, and found myself in the delightfully overgrown cemetery of St Uny’s Church, Lelant. There’s an ongoing movement locally – it may be taking place elsewhere but I’ve so far only encountered it in Cornwall – to allow churchyards to become mini havens for nature by encouraging wildflower seeding and letting the sward around the gravestones grow up rather than be assiduously mown and manicured into perfect lawns. Thus the Lelant churchyard was a meadow of high flowering grasses, something yellow like wild mustard, and hemlock umbels tall and fair dwarfing the granite crosses of the graves. I liked it, but I bet there’s a significant opposition to letting it all get so overrun with weeds. A weed of course, is only a plant growing where it isn’t wanted.
I should have tried to meet the train at Lelant, but as the timings were working out for the bi-hourly service I walked further along the road through the village to Lelant Saltings. The platform faces out to its namesake, a marbled mud pie of browns and algal greens smelling of saltmarsh and sounding like wading birds. There’s a large carpark to encourage visitors to St Ives to get into town by train – definitely do this if you’re planning on visiting. Not only is parking in St Ives a little-praised artform in itself but the train ride along that coastline is incomparable. Better, really, I decided, as I sat on the train myself to get back to retrieve my belongings, than walking. So if anyone’s planning a coast path excursion I would give the same advice. Cheat: take the train.
Back in St Ives I took a shortcut through town to Porthmeor, cursing the dawdling tourists on my decisive route through the narrow streets, always an occupational hazard for a local on a time schedule as I well know from Falmouth. Luckily I’m familiar enough with the town itself as its peninsular geography can be pretty disorientating. The pressing bustle of population seemed somehow incongruous with the emptiness barely half a mile west. Yesterday already seemed a long time ago.
I opened the novel I’d packed optimistically into my baggage on the train home from St Ives for the first time since putting it into the suitcase last Sunday, relaxing into the upholstered motion, St Ives to St Erth, St Erth to Truro, Truro to Falmouth. My evenings after each walk have been a haze of tiredness, notebook updates and sorting several thousand photos of seaviews, rocks and flowers before I have a chance to forget what they’re all of, leaving no time for such indulgence as reading novels. Now I’ve factored in a day and a half’s rest to wash my socks and favourite shirt and repack my snack stockpile before my next stint. This time I’ll have company: Annie and Luna the whippet are going to take on the North Coast, using Annie’s flat in Truro as the base for three daily excursions that will, hopefully, take us all the way to Newquay by Wednesday.
[coastlining [′kōst‚līn·iŋ] – the process of obtaining data from which the coastline can be charted]